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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Happy Holidays and an Update

The holidays are almost upon us! Wow, this year seems to have flown by. I read some marvelous novels this year and hope to do a round-up of my favorites in January, before the TBR pile starts to build again with 2011's offerings.

On the writing front, I'm happy to report that I recently delivered the manuscript of my third historical novel (tentatively titled, I, ISABELLA OF CASTILE) to my editor at Ballantine Books. While she reads it and provides feedback, I'm hard at work on the second novel in my Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles. In this second installment, our lead character Brendan returns to court during the time of Mary I's betrothal to Philip II and matches wits with a deadly Spanish ambassador hell-bent on Elizabeth's destruction, as well as a seductive Englishwoman recently returned from exile, who may be an Imperial spy.

The first book in the series, THE TUDOR SECRET, will be in stores on February 1, 2011. I'm very excited about the novel's release, because I first independently published it years ago (under the title The Secret Lion) and because it has undergone a thorough revision, with a new scene added, under the guidance of my St Martin's Press editor. This is my little-book-that-could; and it's not ceased to astonish me with its tenacity. I recently learned that Target has selected The Tudor Secret as a Breakout title and Borders will feature it as part of a BOGO (Buy One, Get One) promotion! The news couldn't be better for the book's release.

I sincerely hope that you, my reader, enjoy it. Though some of us may be feeling a slight case of Tudor fatigue these days, please let me reassure you that the Spymaster books are an antidote. Featuring a fictional character with a deadly secret of his own, who becomes the intimate spymaster for Elizabeth Tudor, these novels are fast-paced tales of adventure, suspense, and intrigue. Some of the most famous (and infamous) characters in Tudor history, as well as some of the most controversial events, are re-interpreted through the eyes of a man who delves into the underbelly of Tudor life, promising a different slant on what we think we know about this remarkable, tumultuous era.

I'm planning a blog tour through PumpUpYourBook promotion in February, so if you're a blogger interested in hosting me and/or reviewing The Tudor Secret, please check here for when my listing appears. In addition, interested bloggers can always contact me via my website. Though review copies are limited, I promise to do my best to accommodate your requests. Please note that review copies should be ready to send in early January.

In closing, I want to thank you all of you who follow this blog and read my books, talk about them, befriend me on Facebook, LibraryThing, and Goodreads, and let me know through your comments, e-mails, and reviews how you feel about my work. You make this often hectic business of writing a true pleasure, and I hope to entertain you for many years to come.

Happy Holidays!! May the end of 2010 bring you much joy, laughter, and good health.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Mini-review of HERESY by S.J. Parris

Giordano Bruno was one of the 16th century's most erudite visionaries, a Dominican monk who fled the Church after being accused of heresy. His cosmological theories went beyond Copernicus's heliocentric visions; Bruno was the first European to conceptualize the universe as a vast continuum populated by many galaxies. He was also a visionary writer on the concept of memory and avid scholar of mysticism.

Naturally, his curious mind made him very unpopular with Catholic authorities, struggling as they were with the catastrophic repercussions of the Reformation. In S.J. Parris's debut novel, aptly titled HERESY, we first meet Bruno as he is caught in the privy with a forbidden book. When the Inquisition is called in, Bruno flees the scene and ends up in Elizabeth I's London, where, as an associate of Philip Sidney's, he's invited to debate at Oxford. Bruno seeks a lost Heremetical manuscript; he's also been secretly hired by Francis Walsingham, the queen's ruthless spymaster, to investigate a possible Catholic cell operating at the famed university.

Bruno soon finds himself the target of xenophobic comments and suspicion, even as he is drawn to the university rector's lively daughter. A series of grisly murders reveal evidence that Oxford indeed harbors a hotbed of Catholic conspirators, drawing Bruno out of his intellectual comfort zone into a shadowy world where faith and persecution are inextricably entwined and killing in the name of God is a hallowed act. While Bruno’s much-vaunted accomplishments take a back seat to his skills as an amateur sleuth, the story offers some eerily discomfiting moments, depicting a far less tolerant Elizabethan era than we may imagine, as seen through the eyes of a man for whom science and reason are paramount. Secondary characters are skillfully drawn, including a sinister bookseller and the haunted son of an exiled Catholic fellow. HERESY offers an engrossing mystery, an unusual look at the ever-popular Tudor world, and a promising initiation into a new series featuring Giordano Bruno.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Publisher's Weekly reviews THE TUDOR SECRET

The first review for THE TUDOR SECRET is in!

The Tudor Secret. C.W. Gortner, St. Martin's Griffin, $14.99 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-0-312-65850-2

In Gortner's latest riveting historical, the influential Dudley family sends orphan servant Brendan Prescott to serve their cruel son, Lord Robert, at King Edward's court, and the young man is soon caught up in intrigue, suspicion, and shifting loyalties. Young King Edward is under the thumb of the Dudleys, but illness is greatly affecting his influence. Then the lion-eyed Princess Elizabeth, whom the Dudleys view as a threat, arrives and Prescott becomes a spy for her protector, William Cecil. Deeper involvement in the conspiracies surrounding the throne makes Prescott increasingly uncertain of loyalties, including his own, and he begins to question his fate and identity. In Gortner's capable hands, Prescott is a believable and enjoyable hero, a man of strong loyalties but naïve enough to be exploited. And while the Dudleys are mostly broadly drawn villains, Robert has depth, and though readers familiar with the Tudor era will know the key players, they may be surprised by their depiction here. Gortner handles action with aplomb, adding a riveting, fast-paced thriller to the crowded genre of Tudor fiction. (Feb.)

Friday, November 5, 2010

THE QUEEN'S SORROW Mini Review

Mary I of England - known as 'Bloody Mary' - has never evoked much sympathy, despite her fractured adolescence and horrible young adulthood, when she first suffered much of the deprivation and pain she later inflicted during her reign.

Nevertheless, her story is a fascinating one, and author Suzannah Dunn captures a fragment of it in her haunting novel, THE QUEEN'S SORROW. Focusing on the months after Mary's marriage to Philip II and her illusory pregnancy, Dunn has crafted an introspective account of longing and the price we can pay when we believe we know someone else's heart.

Dunn tells her beautifully etched story through the eyes of a Spaniard in Philip II's entourage, Rafael de Prado, who arrives in storm-drenched England bewildered and viewed with suspicion by the English, even as he is charged with the task of building a sundial for the queen. Only, no one really knows how Rafael will be paid or exactly where he is supposed to lodge; in the upheaval caused by the Spanish arrival, there is no room at court, and so Rafael and his apprentice are sent to a London manor. Here, Rafael - homesick, sensitive, and trapped in a shadowy world between two opposing faiths - meets Cecily, the manor's housekeeper, and her young son. A father himself, separated from his beloved boy, Rafael finds himself drawn to the enigmatic Englishwoman; as their attraction deepens, we learn more about Rafael and Cecily’s pasts, even as they each find themselves plunged into the tumult and terror of Bloody Mary’s persecution, their fates ultimately forever altered by the queen’s sorrow.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

THE ASTRONOMER and EMPIRE: Mini-reviews

THE ASTRONOMER by Lawrence Goldstone

This cerebral thriller plunges the reader into a treacherous world of strife in France on the eve of the brutal Wars of Religion. Amaury de Faverges, illegitimate son of the duke of Savoy, secretly yearns to learn more about scientific theories forbidden by the Church; when a beloved classmate of his is murdered, Amaury takes the dead boy's place to foil a heretical plot that could challenge the foundation of the Church. A taut, suspenseful and erudite look at the 16th century's struggle to reconcile science with faith, The Astronomer is a refreshing departure into the turmoil of an era at odds with itself. (I purchased this book. For my longer review, see here).

EMPIRE by Steven Saylor

In his sequel to the NYT bestseller Roma, Steven Saylor returns to depicting the fortunes and tragedies of his fictional Pinarius family, this time during the notorious reigns of the emperors. Mr. Saylor’s keen sense of detail and breadth of knowledge are on ample display, as is his ability to weave centuries of history into entertaining narrative. Because Saylor mines such a richly documented time in Rome’s history, Empire has some intense set-pieces, such as the horrific mass execution of Christians under Nero. Yet precisely because so much of interest occurs, at times Saylor’s fictional characters do not engage as much as their historical counterparts. Nevertheless, Empire is a magnificent feat of storytelling. (The publisher sent this book to me for review.)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Guest post by Laurel Corona, author of PENELOPE'S DAUGHTER

I am honored to welcome Laurel Corona, whose new novel PENELOPE'S DAUGHTER was published this month. Laurel has adapted the legendary Greek epic The Odyssey from the point of view of Xanthe, a daughter whom Odysessus has not met and a potential heir in the struggle for the throne of Ithaca. Like her famous mother Penelope, Xanthe turns to the loom to weave the story of her life and keep danger at bay; her adventures include hiding with her beautiful cousin, Helen of Troy, and her initiation into the ecstasies of goddess worship. But when a bedraggled stranger appears at the doorway of the palace, Xanthe's entire life is thrown into tumult as she confronts a fateful decision on which hinges the very future of Ithaca itself. . .

This is a marvelously engaging novel even for those unfamiliar with Homer's tale, full of Laurel's trademark penchant for historical detail and the vibrant colors of a now-lost world, where gods moved men like pawns on the chessboard of fate. In celebration of her novel's release, Laurel has kindly offered this guest post. Please join me in welcoming Laurel Corona!

The Boys of the Odyssey by Laurel Corona.
It’s just a hunch, but I think if you were to ask people on the street to name a character from ancient history, at least some of them would come up with--you know, the guy with a boat, the one who had all those adventures. Odysseus—yeah, that’s the one. Put out the Cyclops’ eye, nearly drowned a few times. Had a wife at home and had to kill all these guys trying to marry her.

It’s a great story, but as I researched Penelope’s Daughter I was stunned by how much more there is to Odysseus’ adventures. It turns out that of all the storytellers about the Trojan War and its aftermath, only Homer unequivocally saw Odysseus as a hero. In fact, he comes off pretty badly everywhere else. There’s a body of fragmentary work collectively called the Greek Epic Cycle, which in addition to the Iliad and Odyssey contains other works dealing with the Trojan War. The works in the collection include the Cypria, the Aethiopis, the Iliupersis, the Nosti, and the Telegony. Hardly household words (and barely pronounceable ones at that!), these works contain several familiar stories either not included by Homer or only briefly alluded to. The first, from the Cypria, is the story of how, when a group of Greek warriors came to get Odysseus to join the troops going to war against Troy, Odysseus feigned madness because he didn’t want to leave his wife and young son. He babbled and acted crazy, including hitching a donkey and ox to the same plough, and sowing a field with salt--craziness indeed because the soil would have been spoiled for crops for a long time to come, and rocky Ithaca had no arable land to spare. He is found out, however, when his baby son is placed in the path of the plough and Odysseus turns it aside to save his child’s life. It’s a sweet story, I think, but not really consistent with the “willing warrior” stereotype.

It illustrates a quality in Odysseus that Homer calls wiliness or craftiness, but other sources see as downright sneakiness and moral laxity. For example, when Agamemnon, the Greek commander, is stranded in Aulis by lack of wind and cannot sail to Troy, Agamemnon decides that a sacrifice to the gods would be in order. He sends Odysseus to Mycenae, where Agamemnon’s wife and family live, to get Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, to bring their daughter to Aulis to be sacrificed. Of course no mother is going to agree to this plan, so Odysseus lies to her and tells her Iphigenia is going to Aulis to be married to Achilles. They pack up and goes, and voila!—she is led off to sacrifice wearing her wedding dress. And guess what? Right afterwards the winds come up, so Agamemnon ends up looking like quite a visionary. Homer doesn’t include stories of Odysseus’ cold-blooded murder of a rival, Palamedes, nor the children he sired, according to some sources, while held captive by the goddess Circe. Slick and devious, or creative and resourceful? Self-serving plunderer, or homesick family man? It depends on who’s telling the story.

Homer also ends the Odyssey a bit prematurely, avoiding plot complications that would show Odysseus as far less faithful to Penelope than she was to him. In the Telegony, Odysseus has scarcely left Penelope after his return to Ithaca, when he arrives in the land of the Thesprotians, promptly marries Callidice, their queen, and has a son by her. When Callidice dies, Odysseus leaves the kingdom to their son, and goes home only to discover—surprise, surprise!—that Penelope had in the interim borne him another son. (You can imagine how I felt when I discovered that a baby born during the father’s absence was already part of the story!) Years later, Telegonus, one of his sons by Circe, fails to recognize the father who had abandoned him and his mother as a child, and kills him in battle. When he discovers his error, Telegonus takes Telemachus and Penelope, along with Odysseus’ corpse, back home to Circe’s island. Once there, Telegonus marries Penelope, and Telemachus marries Circe. Perhaps it’s best that Homer stopped where he did!

One more crazy story does appear in Homer but it is so nonsensical I’m not surprised most people miss it. After Odysseus kills all the suitors and reclaims Penelope, he turns around and leaves immediately--after almost twenty years away!--saying he has to go find a place where people have never heard of the sea (not heard the sea, heard of it), which in the world of the ancient Greeks would have been hard to imagine. Why did he have to do this? So he could plant an oar and sacrifice some oxen. Then, he promises he will come and grow old in Ithaca. Okay, the gods told him to do it, but does anybody want to lay bets on how quickly he’ll be back?
A second boy in the Odyssey really is a boy, Odysseus’ and Penelope’s son Telemachus. A great deal of the epic revolves around Telemachus’ ineffective attempts to assert his manhood. He’s really a sorry excuse for a warrior king’s son.Though Homer uses the stock phrases of oral poetry, making Telemachus “discreet” in thought and “godlike” in appearance, it’s hard to see how even Homer could find much of merit in his incessant whining both directly to the suitors and to others about what bullies they are. “I’m just a helpless little kid,” he seems to be saying, “but just you wait until I grow up!”

Wait a minute—aren’t we in the twentieth year of Odysseus’ absence? Doesn’t Telemachus have to be at least twenty-one? Exactly what is his excuse? Even Homer explains Telemachus’ uncharacteristic courage in the battle with the suitors as resulting from a spell cast by Athena, so I doubt even the bard himself would take too much issue with what I think is a very well deserved although rather negative characterization of him in Penelope’s Daughter.

Despite Homer’s disinclination to think of women as more than helpless victims or terrible temptresses, I think the women are by far the most interesting characters in the story. It was wonderful to imagine how Penelope, a child bride still in her teens when Odysseus left, would handle the absence of her husband for twenty years. Surely she would do more than weave and weep, as Homer suggests. We see Helen briefly in the Odyssey when Telemachus goes to Sparta for news of his father. Helen was reputedly twelve when she was married and left behind an eight-year-old daughter when she ran off with Paris to Troy. Telemachus visits in the twentieth year of Odysseus’ absence, when Helen is forty, old by the standards of the day. With all she has seen and all the powers she has gained, I found it far more interesting to imagine her at that age, when in her teens no one seemed to be able to come up with much of anything to say about her except that she was very, very beautiful. Introducing a daughter into the Odyssey broke the story wide open for me, making the tale of those left behind every bit as exciting as battling monsters, gods and heroes.

I hope my readers agree.

Thank you, Laurel. To learn more about Laurel and her work, please visit her website.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Winners of the Elizabeth Chadwick Giveaway!!

I am so sorry to be late posting these. The winners of FOR THE KING'S FAVOR are:
Amy
Audra

Please send your full mailing address to me at cwgortner AT earthlink DOT net and I will forward your information to Sourcebooks, which will mail out the books. If I do not hear from you by October 5, I will select a new winner from those who entered.
Congratulations and thanks to everyone who entered! A special thank you as well to Elizabeth Chadwick for her fascinating guest post and to Sourcebooks for sponsoring this giveaway.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A tribute to my friend, Judith Merkle Riley

I first met Judith Merkle Riley in a bookstore. I was searching for a new book to read and I came across novel, The Oracle Glass, set in 17th century France. Within days of purchasing that book, I’d rushed out to buy her other novels and she had a fan for life. Imagine my delight when years later, in 2004, I learned that Judith was going to be the guest of honor at the Historical Novel Society’s first US Conference in Salt Lake City.

I was planning to attend the conference to promote my independently published novel; I’d spent the last ten years in the trenches seeking a publisher, without a bite from a commercial house, and I was excited to attend a conference dedicated to celebrating the readers and writers and of the genre I love, though I must admit I felt awkward even calling myself an author.

Then I met Judith. A tall woman with a ready smile dressed in flowing black, she had been wandering the lobby of the hotel, and I finally got up the guts to approach her. I told her how much I loved her work and how delighted I was to meet her; I sounded like a star-struck teenager yet within minutes we were talking about books, writing, history, the fact that we both love Spain (Judith danced flamenco, among her many other talents) and soon it was as if we had known each other forever.

She had that effect on people, an innate ability to make others feel at ease. There wasn’t an ounce of the prima donna in Judith, no bombastic grandeur or self-importance, though she was an internationally bestselling author. Judith cared deeply about writers and writing; she was passionate about research and history, but she always seemed a bit flummoxed by her success. She found it fascinating, and amusing, that she was regarded with such esteem. After all, she’d kept her teaching job, raised her kids, been through a divorce; she'd endured the triumphs and travails of everyone else. Though I think she secretly loved being told how much a reader liked her work, her pleasure derived from a genuine appreciation for the fact that her words had touched others, that someone had actually cared enough to read and like her book.

Over the course of that heady conference weekend, Judith and I became friends. We hung out together at dinner, giggled over drinks one night with the equally gracious and divinely funny Rosalind Miles, and not once did Judith ever treat me as anyone other than a fellow writer. She bought a copy of my self-published book; and on the shared ride we took to the airport, she mentioned she had started reading it and wanted to give me a referral to her literary agency for the book I’d been pitching to editors at the conference. Would I give her a few sample chapters? That book was The Last Queen and Judith’s enthusiastic referral got me my agent, Jennifer Weltz at the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, who eventually sold my work at auction to Ballantine Books.

No one was more thrilled for me than Judith. In the following years, we spoke often on the phone and she always wanted to hear about what was happening in my career, even as she embarked on her own valiant, often arduous struggle against an insidious illness. Once when I went to visit her at her home, she showed me the organic wheat grass she was growing and I learned that beyond that keen mind and delicious wit, which make her novels such original paeans to the resiliency and foibles of women who are swept up in extraordinary circumstances, Judith was in fact a multi-faceted and extraordinary woman herself, whose passion for life and spirit for adventure and discovery refused to be quenched.

When I last spoke to her, Judith's illness had taken a frightening turn for the worse. We had talked often of the challenges she faced, but never once, in all that time, did I ever hear her utter a single complaint. She expressed to me her gratitude for the ability to re-evaluate her priorities and embrace her life, for the many friends she’d made and the love she had received. If she knew she would never write another book, she made no mention of it. She spoke as if time would always be on her side. In a way, it is.

Though she’'ll be greatly missed by all of us who had the privilege to know her, Judith Merkle Riley lives on in her wonderful novels, all of which reflect her unique humor, her unending passion, and her grand and generous heart.

We can do her no greater honor than to read them.

To read another tribute to Judith, please visit Sarah Johnson’s Reading The Past.
To read an interview I did with Judith, please click here
.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Guest post by Anna Elliott, author of DARK MOON OF AVALON

I am delighted to welcome Anna Elliott, whose new book, Dark Moon of Avalon, Book 2 in her sensational Twilight of Avalon trilogy was published this month. Anna has taken the legendary tale of lovers Trystan and Isolde and cast it within an historically accurate time, refreshing their oft-told story with a unique and often dark look at the politics, intrigue, and treachery of the Dark Ages.

In Dark Moon of Avalon, the former High Queen, Isolde, and her friend and protector, Trystan, are reunited in a dangerous quest to keep the usurper, Lord Marche, and his Saxon allies from the throne of Britain. Using Isolde’s cunning wit and talent for healing and Trystan’s strength and bravery, they must persuade even enemy rulers that their allegiance to the High King is needed to keep Britain safe. Steeped in the magic and lore of Arthurian legend, Elliott paints a moving portrait of a timeless romance, fraught with danger, yet with the power to inspire heroism and transcend even the darkest age.

In celebration of her novel's release, Anna has kindly offered this guest post. Please join me in welcoming Anna Elliott!

From Politics to Potions: Writing Dark Age Arthurian Britain
by Anna Elliott

For me, the unique enchantment of the Arthurian legends lies in their blend of fantasy and history. The world of the King Arthur is a recognizably historical one, part of Britain's past, and in fact many scholars have explored the possibility of a real, historic Arthur--who, if he existed, was most likely a Celtic warlord of the mid fifth century, a warrior who led a triumphant stand against the incursions of Saxons onto British shores. Trystan, whose existence as a real historic figure is suggested by a memorial stone in Cornwall, was likely a roughly contemporary warrior, possibly the son of a Cornish petty king, whose cycle of tales were eventually absorbed into the legends growing up around Arthur and his war band.

And yet the world of the Arthur tales is one steeped in magic, as well. It's a world filled with the voices of prophecy, with enchanted swords and Otherworldly maidens and the magical Isle of Avalon, where Arthur lies in eternal sleep, healing of his wounds, waiting to ride once more in Britain’s greatest hour of need. That combination of historical truth with the wonderful potential for magic was what most of all drew me to the Arthur stories when I first studied them in college. And it was what delighted me about living in my own version of the Arthurian world while writing the Twilight of Avalon trilogy.

If Arthur did exist, he lived during the fifth century: a brutal, chaotic time in Britain. Roman Britain had crumbled; Rome's legions had been withdrawn from this far-flung outpost of the empire, leaving the country prey to invading Pictish and Irish tribes from the west and north and to Saxon invasions from the east. As brutal a time as it certainly was, though, this period was in many ways also a crucible in which the British identity and sense of place was forged.
I decided to set my story there, to make my particular Arthurian world grounded in what scraps of historical fact we know of Dark Age Britain. And I wanted to give that time period as accurate a portrayal as I could, 'warts and all' as the saying goes. Because that violence and chaos is at the root of the legends; it is against this particular backdrop that Arthur appears, a war hero who led a victorious campaign against the invaders and so inspiring the tales that still captures our imaginations today.

I wanted, too, to honor the magic of the original tales. Which is not as hard to fit in with historical fact as it may sound. The Dark Age worldview was a magical one, make no mistake. People in Dark Age Britain believed absolutely in magical forces in the same way we believe in the laws of gravity and that the world is round. Pre-Christian Celtic belief emphasizes the powers of trances and dreams that transcend physical boundaries and touch an Otherworld that is separated from our own by only the thinnest of veils. So my Isolde is the granddaughter of Morgan (sometimes known as Morgan le Fey in the original Arthur stories). Isolde is gifted through Morgan with both the knowledge of a healer and with the Sight, which enables her to receive visions and hear voices from the Otherworld.

And yet, there were those elements of the original Trystan and Isolde tale that were harder to fit in with any degree of historical verisimilitude. The second book of the trilogy, Dark Moon of Avalon, is the most romantic of the three books: the part of my own retelling in which I had to ask what treatment I was going to give the famous love potion, which in the original legend causes Trystan and Isolde to fall helplessly in love--but which is harder to make into a fact of a historically grounded Dark Age world! I decided on a more symbolic approach, which I've always felt is a way--though certainly not the only way--of reading the fantastical elements of the Arthurian tales. Dragons, for example, can be literal scaly monsters, but they can also be seen as a metaphor for the evil that exists outside the bounds of organized society. And a love potion like the one Trystan and Isolde accidentally imbibe can be viewed as a metaphor for the overwhelming, all-consuming nature of passionate romantic love.

In Dark Moon of Avalon, Trystan and Isolde journey together by boat, as in the original tale, and it is over the course of the journey that they deepen and develop their relationship, which again is true to the original legend. But the purpose of their journey is based on what scraps of historical fact we can gather about the shaky political situation of sixth-century Britain. And they don't need a literal draft of a magical potion to fall in love--only the magic of their own powerful emotional bond.

Anna Elliott is a longtime devotee of historical fiction and Arthurian legend. She lives in the Washington DC Metro area with her husband and 2 daughters. To learn more about Anna and her work, please visit her website.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Guest post from Elizabeth Chadwick, author of FOR THE KING'S FAVOR. Win TWO free copies!

Acclaimed historical fiction author Elizabeth Chadwick has carved a unique place for herself in the genre; not only does she command an intensely loyal following and an impressive list of books to her name, but she is distinguished by meticulous research and keen ability to convey the drama of the past with poignant immediacy, never resorting to anarchronisms. The London Times describes her as "an author who makes historical fiction come gloriously alive;" personally, I'm both a huge fan of her work and in awe of how effortless she makes it all seem.

In her new novel, FOR THE KING'S FAVOR , Ms Chadwick brings to compelling, bittersweet life the little-known story of Ida de Rosney, mistress to Henry II, whose passionate love for a young lord plunges her and her lover into a tumultous struggle. A captivating story, and testament to the power of sacrifice and the strength of love, this is Elizabeth Chadwick at her best. In celebration of the book's release, Elizabeth has kindly offered this guest post; in addition, her US publisher Sourcebooks is offering readers of this blog TWO free copies. Entries are available for US and Canada addresses only. Please see the bottom of this post for details to enter. Please join me in welcoming my friend, Elizabeth Chadwick, to Historical Boys.

Finding a Forgotten Royal Mistress
by Elizabeth Chadwick

What was it like to be the mistress of a king? To have the royal favour, bear the sovereign’s child and be at the hub of court life? What was it like to have power and yet be powerless when it came to the sovereign’s whim? And what happened to a mistress when she ceased to be the royal darling? For the King’s Favor tells the story of one such mistress. Her identity has only come to light in the last decade. Her name was Ida de Tosney or Toeni, and she was about fifteen years old when she caught the eye of King Henry II of England around the year 1176.

Initially I wanted to write about Ida because the firstborn son of her marriage with Roger Bigod, future Earl of Norfolk, went on to marry the eldest daughter of the great English knight, magnate and hero William Marshal whom I had written about in The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion.. Roger himself had a long and distinguished career and I was keen to follow up his family story to the point where it linked into the Marshal one. Before I began writing, I knew vaguely that he had married a former mistress of King Henry II, but once I made Ida my heroine, I had to hit the research trail and try to discover more about her.

She is elusive in the historical record. We only know her name from a few charters belonging to the time when she was married to Roger where she is referred to as “Comitisse Ida, uxoris mee,” or “Countess Ida, my wife.” We only know that she was a royal mistress before her marriage to Roger because of a French list of prisoners drawn up after the battle of Bouvines in 1214, where William Longespee, Earl of Salisbury, bastard son of King Henry II, refers to Ralph Bigod who was on the prison list, as his brother. In another charter of Bradenstoke Priory, Longespee mentions his mother, Countess Ida, but since there was more than one Countess Ida around at the time, the discovered prison list was vital in identifying the right one.

Ida was the daughter of Ralph de Tosney, lord of Flamstead, and his wife, Margaret Beaumont who was close kin to the earls of Leicester. Through various family marriages, Ida had kinship with the royal house of Scotland. When her father died, Ida became the King’s ward, with her marriage to be disposed of as he chose. Henry had a certain reputation with women and already had several bastard children by various unknown women. His long term affair with Rosamund de Clifford is notorious and has passed into legend. It would have begun when Rosamund was still very young – in her teens, and ended with her death at Godstow nunnery in 1176. By this date, Ida de Tosney would have been a nubile adolescent and she plainly caught Henry’s eye in the aftermath of his losing Rosamund. Sometime between 1177 and early 1181, she bore Henry a son who became William Longespée, Earl of Salisbury, an adventurous soul and hero of the great sea victory at Damme against the French in 1213.

If Rosamund and Ida are any indication, Henry II seems to have harboured a preference for innocent young girls as his mistresses. Perhaps he found them refreshing after doing battle with his formidable queen Eleanor of Acquitaine. As an author I am led to speculate about what this attention was like for such young women who would have had little choice but to submit to the royal will. Mistresses of kings are often portrayed as sexy women with power to wield via their ability to reach the King’s ear (and other parts!), but for young, inexperienced girls, can there really have been any pleasure and real power in their role?

They were pawns to the royal lust. When a king had had his fill, they could be retired to a nunnery or sold off in marriage. We do not know if the latter is what happened to Ida, but certainly she wed Roger Bigod, future Earl of Norfolk in December 1181 about 5 years after Henry took up with her. Ida’s and Roger’s first son was born before the end of the following year and they went on to have another 3 boys and 2 girls at least, so it was certainly a fruitful match in the bedchamber. But what of Ida’s first child, William FitzRoy who became Longespée? His childhood is unknown, but by the early 1190’s as an adolescent, he was being given lands and duties to bring in an income and it seems that he was raised either at court, or in a household closely attached to the court. Certainly his mother did not bring him with her to her marriage. What she felt about this and what effect it had on her, I can only imagine – with a little help from my delvings. Ida’s reactions are a theme I explore in detail in For the King’s Favor. The same with her husband, Roger. What were his thoughts and feelings when he married a still very young woman who had shared the King’s bed and had borne a son of that liaison? How did it affect him, especially when he desperately needed to keep the king’s favor? There must have been some very tricky shoals to negotiate, both the diplomatic and the emotional, and for all concerned.

Authors of historical fiction know that the past is another country and that attitudes were often different, and very alien to the way society functions now, but I also take the view that it is us as we were then, and like clothes, while fashions and appearances change, people don’t. I hope that Ida de Tosney and Roger Bigod are people of their time, but I also hope that a modern audience will recognise their dilemmas and empathise.
Many thanks to C.W. for inviting me to post on his excellent blog!

Elizabeth Chadwick lives near Nottingham with her husband and two sons. She is the author of 18 historical novels, including The Greatest Knight, The Scarlet Lion, A Place Beyond Courage, Lords of the White Castle, Shadows and Strongholds, the Winter Mantle, and The Falcons of Montabard, four of which have been shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Awards. Much of her research is carried out as a member of Regia Anglorum, an early medieval re-enactment society with the emphasis on accurately re-creating the past. She won a Betty Trask Award for The Wild Hunt, her first novel. To learn more about her and her work please visit her website.

To win one of two free copies of For The King's Favor: You must be a follower of this blog AND leave a comment below. Winners will be selected on September 30 and notified; you must have a valid postal address for the book to be mailed directly to you by the publisher. Good luck!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Guest Post from Jeri Westerson, author THE DEMON'S PARCHMENT

Jeri Westerson, my favorite historical 'noir' writer, is back with the sexy, troubled Crispin Guest in her third novel in the series, THE DEMON'S PARCHMENT. Fans of Crispin's previous adventures, Veil of Lies and Serpent in the Thorns, will be excited to know that in this latest installment, Crispin finds himself again in danger when he warily takes on his most recent client, Jacob of Provencal, a Jewish physician at court. Though all Jews were expelled from England nearly a century before, Jacob has hired Crispin to find stolen parchments that might be behind the recent savage murders of young boys -- parchments that someone might have used to bring forth a demon which now stalks the streets and alleys of London.

Jeri has kindly offered this guest blog post to celebrate the October 12 release of The Demon's Parchment. Please join me in welcoming her to Historical Boys!

The Four Humors
By Jeri Westerson

No, this is not about the Marx Brothers. We don’t mean humor as in “ha ha” but humors as in exhalations of the damp variety. We are talking, well, bodily fluids. So, erm, why are we talking bodily fluids on this nice, clean blog, you may be asking? Because we are talking about my medieval mystery series and you can’t talk about things medieval without talking about bodily fluids…um, I mean Humors.

This was an ancient theory of physiology concerning one’s health and character. Indeed, one’s very soul might be in trouble if these four humors were not in balance. The four humors are Blood, Yellow Bile, Phlegm, and Black Bile, which were also associated with the four elements: air, fire, water, and earth. You see, to the medieval mind, the spiritual was bound up with the earthly. It all worked together.
So each humor reflected a particular color, if you will, of the body and spirit, and represented a good or bad constitution. These humors gave off vapors that went right to the brain and changed the temperament of the person.

Blood, for example, was a hot and moist environment and was associated with the element air. If you had balanced blood you were “sanguine” and prone to an amorous and generous temperament. Too much and you might go overboard and needed bleeding. Not enough and they would fill you up with red wine, which looked like blood (they were big into stuff that looked like other stuff. It seemed to make sense to them.)
Yellow bile was hot and dry and associated with fire. Too much yellow bile and you were “choleric” and tended toward violence and vengeance. Phlegm was cold and moist and associated with water. You were “phlegmatic” if you had too much of this and were dull, pale, and cowardly.
Are you sensing a theme here? That some of the vocabulary we use all the time had its origins in medieval medicine? Yeah, you’d be right. Sort of. This theory of the humors or humorism came down to us from the Greeks, Hippocrates in fact, but the medievals didn’t see too much wrong with these ideas and continued with this form of diagnosis well into the Renaissance. Black bile was cold and dry and was associated with earth. Too much black bile made you “melancholic” and gluttonous, lazy, and sentimental.

It was a quick way to diagnose your problems. If you were easily angered, then it was too much yellow bile and meant your gall bladder (certain organs were also associated with each humor). The best way to help you out was to diagnose and treat. Bloodletting to keep the liver healthy. Emetics and purges for the other three. For a diagnoses, there was also a lot of sniffing, examining, and tasting of urine.

Ah, those were the days.

The Boston Globe has called Jeri Westerson's hero, “A medieval Sam Spade, a tough guy who operates according to his own moral compass.” Her 2008 debut from St. Martin’s Press, VEIL OF LIES, garnered nominations for the Macavity Award for historical mystery and the Shamus Award for Best First PI novel. Her second, SERPENT IN THE THORNS, is also a 2010 Macavity finalist and a finalist for the 2010 Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award. To learn more about Jeri and her work, please visit her website.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Review of THE SCARLET CONTESSA by Jeanne Kalogridis

Bestselling author Jeanne Kalogridis (The Borgia Bride and I, Mona Lisa) returns to Renaissance Italy in this vivid tale of one of the era's lesser known figures— the indomitable Caterina Sforza, illegitimate daughter of the duke of Milan, who married into the papal della Rovere family and ended up battling for her estates against the notorious Borgia.

Told through the eyes of Caterina's lady in waiting, Dea, the book sweeps the reader from the glamorous barbarism of the Sforza court to the vicious intrigues of Rome and insular savagery of rural Romagna. Dea is a strong narrator in her own right, her mysterious birth and determination to uncover the mystery behind her husband's murder propelling her into arcane magical knowledge linked to a secret society founded by the Medici.

Dea's compassion and loyalty to her mistress give the story its humanity; and while at times the supernatural dalliances can feel forced, Ms Kalogridis more than compensates with superb attention to details of the era and in her riveting depiction of the danger and ambition of a country broken into patchwork states, where families vying for power will do anything to ensure their success. Infamous Rodrigo Borgia, patriarch of the clan, strides across the stage as a magnetic master of seduction, terrifying in his resolve, and Caterina’s husband is a murderous giant with a weakness for gambling and appetite for mayhem. But in the end, the reader’s heart is captured by Caterina Sforza herself— a pampered, vain young girl married off to further Sforza influence in Rome, who grows into a shrewd and calculating wife possessed of a ferocious carnality, capable of intriguing with the best of the men to safeguard her dynasty; until finally she becomes the unrepentant virago of legend, resolved to protect her children and her lands from Borgia's marauding forces.

Ms Kalogridis has crafted a magnificent evocation of a tumultuous and complex era, where the ripple of silk hides a vial of poison, where the dagger in the sleeve is only a breath away, and where one bold woman dares to defy convention and live as she sees fit. Highly recommended!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Review of DRACULA IN LOVE by Karen Essex

Tomorrow, my good friend Karen Essex's latest novel, DRACULA IN LOVE, hits the stores! In celebration of its release, here's my review of this sumptuous and passionate interpretation of the immortal love story (this review first appeared on Loaded Questions):

Dracula Gets Sexy
He’s the enigmatic stranger in the black cape, a shape-shifting outcast who has given rise to some of literature’s - and Hollywood’s - most iconic imagery. When it was published in 1897, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a critically acclaimed horror story; it did not send the shockwaves it should have through Victorian morality, excavating the repressed sexuality and decay of a fading empire while exalting the era's misogynistic flair. However, in subsequent years, as it garnered international bestselling status, Dracula began to reveal itself as a cautionary tale of unbridled desire.

Now, 113 years later, bestselling author Karen Essex, known for her lush prose and portraits of powerful women in Leonardo’s Swans, Stealing Athena, and a double-volume look at the quintessential femme fatale, Kleopatra and Pharaoh, takes on the Count in Dracula in Love. It’s a bold move. While Dracula has been revisited several times and in various incarnations, not all have been successful; and many of us have firm ideas of who he is, and, more importantly, who he is not. Nevertheless, Ms Essex serves up a sensual, unabashedly romantic approach to the fanged one, telling the tale through the voice of Mina herself, whose love affair with Dracula has become a byword for eternal obsession.

Building on framework established by Stoker, Essex vividly presents the true Victorian world inhabited by these characters—a world where a fledgling emancipation movement collides with the barbaric treatment of those deemed sexually neurotic; where marriage is still the ultimate goal for a woman; and virtue is prized more than fulfillment. While most of Stoker’s cast is present, they’ve been reshaped, with Lucy paying a terrifying price for her extra-betrothal liaison and Van Helsing as a righteous physician engaged in lethal experimentation. The Count takes his time before he appears, seen only in tantalizing glimpses; by then, Mina’s engaging, increasingly paranoid voice has captured our imagination, as she struggles to survive both her own recurring nightmares and a budding awareness that just beyond her tightly corseted existence lurks a tangled labyrinth of feral secrets.

Dracula in Love is not a standard vampire tale and purists may take issue with Ms Essex’s mythology-inspired take on the legend; however, for those who yearn for something more than adolescents pining over immortal boyfriends, this is the antidote—a luscious paean to forbidden longing.

To learn more about Karen Essex and her work, and to participate in the resurrection of our favorite Count, please visit Karen's website.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Review of THE SECRET ELEANOR by Cecelia Holland

Eleanor of Aquitaine is historical fiction's current "It" girl. Several recently published novels tackle various parts of her long, often tumultuous life, including Christy English's earnest The Queen's Pawn about Eleanor's challenging relationship with her rival, Alys, and Alison Weir's controversial Captive Queen. For many readers, Sharon Penman's magnificent Time and Chance and Devil's Brood are the defining novels, evoking Eleanor in both her youthful glory and mature rage; Margaret Ball's ethereal Duchess of Aquitaine likewise captures the magnetic younger Eleanor, a high-strung heiress who fascinated her contemporaries with her courage, zeal for life, and bold passion. Her alliance with Henry II electrified her world; to this day, she continues to exert the same power over us - fearless in her defiance and uncompromising in her refusal to submit to the gender bias of her era.

Now, highly acclaimed and prolific novelist Cecelia Holland - arguably the true queen of historical fiction, whose books cover everything from early Byzantium to early 18th century California - brings us a novel about that pivotal year in Eleanor's career, when she launched her quest to get her marriage to pious Louis of France annulled so she could marry fiery Henry Plantagenet. Written in Ms Holland's elegant style The Secret Eleanor is also the tale of her "secret" other half: her sister, Petronilla, an oft-neglected historical character who, in this novel, bears an uncanny resemblance to her famous sibling, and thus brings about remarkable deceit, lethal rivalry, and life-altering transformation.

One of Ms Holland's most impressive gifts is her ability to evoke the past with a few select words. Here, we can feel the moldering damp of Louis's palace on the Seine; the earthy aroma of Poitiers in spring; and icy fall of winter in a neglected roadside inn. Ms Holland is equally adept with characterization, offering us a regally impetuous Eleanor; her sedate yet covetous sister; an ambitious peasant maid who turns the tables on her abusers; a handsome troubador who is more than he seems; an emasculated royal advisor intent on Eleanor's downfall; and of course the randy, hotheaded, devilish Henry himself, who catches Eleanor's gaze from across a crowded hall and sets the world afire to possess her.

Those familiar with the facts of Eleanor's life will find much to revel in here, particularly as Ms Holland's choice to tell part of the story through Petronilla both freshens up more familiar historical events as well as offers a less fawning look at the legendary duchess. And for those who do not yet know Eleanor's story, you can do no better than to start with The Secret Eleanor.

If you'd like to read more about the writing of this novel, please visit Sarah Johnson's Reading The Past for an interview with Ms Holland herself.

Win a copy of CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI

Want to win a personalized copy of my latest novel and visit a great blog? Please click over to History and Women and enter to win!

August 2 to 6 on http://www.historyandwomen.com/ and August 16 to 20 on http://historicalnovelreview.blogspot.com/

A very special thank you to the fantastic, talented Mirella Patzer for hosting me. Check out her own books while you're there!

Monday, July 26, 2010

When Fiction and History Collide

History and historical fiction appear to go hand-in-hand; without the former, certainly there couldn't be the latter. Yet in some cases, these two apparent inseparable allies make for uneasy bedfellows. The truth is, not everyone who loves history is going to love historical fiction and vice versa. Some people are best disposed to the history itself, such as original documents, erudite biographies etc. This is the arena where scholars most often dwell; it's a hallowed place yet not one necessarily conducive to reading historical fiction, which, in the final say, remains a form of entertainment.

While historical fiction can inform and inspire an interest in history, and should of course refrain from blatant disrespect, it was never intended to substitute or even augument history itself. Historical fiction is a form of creative interpretation; it utilizes historical framework to relate a fictionalized story based on the past. The most informed readers will often find anacronisms in a novel that others might never notice and find this disillusioning, even off-putting; but we should remember that to be a working historical fiction writer in today's publishing climate, by and large it's often required to steamline characterizations, simplify complex political, social, and religious situations, modernize dialogue, keep the cast small and the pacing crisp. In sum, most commercial editors at major houses want writers whose books can be enjoyed by all potential readers, regardless of their particular background.

History is not an easy subject; historical fiction, when done well, can help to relieve the most intimidating aspects of history and make it accessible to those who believe the past can't be exciting or fun, with all those pesky dates and titles to remember. A scholar approaches history from an extremely detailed perspective; while such knowledge can inform the reading of historical fiction and even make it enjoyable, it can also by contrast curtail the ability to suspend disbelief, which is an essential requirement for fiction, regardless of the genre.

We read novels because we want to be entertained; we read nonfiction because we want to learn. And while the two may cross and, in the best of cases, even blend, the distinction still exists.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Loaded Questions is Back!

After a long hiatus, Kelly Hewitt's fabulous Loaded Questions is back. If you haven't followed it before, Kelly features marvelous interviews with authors, as well as insider scoop on publishing news and other book-related features. Welcome back, Kelly! We missed you.

You can find my own interview with Kelly here.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Amazing Jean Taggart

On July 18, Jean Taggart, a fourth-generation Californian and writer, left this world. She was 91 years old and though very well-traveled (she took a cruise to Guatemala in her 80s) she had spent most of her life in San Francisco, a city she revered.

I first met Jean 16 years ago; I was working on my first historical novel and looking for a group to join in the area. I saw an ad in the Noe Valley Voice for a group called the Sunset Writers and called; Jean answered the phone. She had a rough, sexy voice - she was in her 70s at this time but she sounded decades younger and we had almost instant rapport. She told me the group had openings and to come to their next meeting. "They'll have to audition you," she said, "but don't worry. I'm sure you'll do just fine."

That first meeting, I was a bundle of nerves. It was my first live encounter with other writers; I didn't know what to expect. I'd brought a few chapters of my opus-in-progress; as I walked up the steps to Jean's cozy home, shaded by trees on a sunny hillside corner near Noe Valley, I heard laughter coming from within. Jean opened the door, a tall, slightly stoop-shouldered, white haired woman with sparkling blue eyes and an infectious grin. "Good, you're young," she said, motioning me in. "We need young blood here." She offered me coffee - she always had coffee and cookies available at every meeting - in a crowded kitchen where her cats languidly inspected my shoes and over which presided a framed poster of a faerie-like woman holding a broom and the words: F*#K Housework.

Over the next years, myriad group members came and went; we had our internal dramas, controversies, even fights, but Jean remained a constant, her house a place of refuge where we gathered to read aloud from our work and receive criticism and advice. Jean was a gifted writer with a knack for the cut-to-the-chase critique; like many intelligent, quick-witted people she did not suffer fools gladly. She loved youth, and though our younger members arrived like whirlwinds of enthusiasm and invariably moved on, several kept in contact with Jean after they left our group.

Her own writing tended to reflect her chief passion: her love for California. Raised in the Sacramento area, Jean had been through the war and lost a brother overseas; her other brother, also gone by the time I met her, had been a talented novelist whose life had often been difficult. She'd traveled abroad many times; she loved to discover new places and never complained about the hardships that travel must have imposed on a woman of her years, but home was San Francisco - the City by the Bay whose history she had experienced firsthand and was chronicled in her marvelous unpublished series of stories, Taylor Street Tales. Though Jean was married for only a short time, when she spoke of past beaus and of her glamorous, heady life in San Francisco in the 1940s and '50s, you could see in her eyes the secret joy of a woman who had loved often and loved well. Men and cats: each had felt the magnetic pull of her ardor for life. Though men faded eventually, cats remained. Jean always had a cat, or two, frightened creatures she rescued and nurtured back to trust.

Jean dabbled in painting, as well - her splashy watercolors were often haphazardly arranged about her house, with and without frames. Her eclectic sense of decor carried over to her taste in books; she was attracted to literary works, but also loved a good mystery. One of the highest compliments she ever paid me was that I'd made her appreciate historical fiction, a genre she'd always associated with "big gowns and hair." When I finally managed to get published after years of disappointments and perseverance, Jean took immense pleasure in my success and rallied her neighborhood bookseller to order in my books.

Some of my favorite moments with Jean were spent at her kitchen table, in the half-hour before the rest of our writing group arrived; over coffee and the occasional furtive cigarette, she'd share with me stories of San Francisco; of the speak-eases in the Tenderloin where she used to go dancing; the clatter of cable cars on Nob Hill where she lived; the busy downtown office where she worked; and of the aura of endless promise shimmering over a time when the end of the war had heralded a burst of optimism in America. Jean lived through it all: the penciled seam up-the-leg stocking of the 40s; the ice-cream crinolines of the 50s; the hedonistic smoky rebellion of the Beat Generation; the sexual napalm of Flower Power; the bra burning and glitter balls of the 70s; the Me-Me 80s, Woe-is-Me 90s, and into the uncertain early years of a troubled new century. She had experienced more history than most of us will ever see and lost most of her contemporaries in the process. Her face would sometimes turn distant as she recalled everyone she had loved and said goodbye to during her remarkable long life; though Jean rarely indulged in self-pity or regret, I could tell that all those goodbyes lived inside her. We had a term for it: 'The Price of Longevity.' She herself had narrowly escaped the shadow of her mortality on various occasions; a breast cancer survivor, she was proud of her scars and matter-of-fact about the horrors she'd undergone as a result of her mastectomies and implants. Still, Jean never wasted time on looking back; she reveled in the present, in the thrill of opportunity, and even took up blogging.

Toward the last few years of her life, after a series of serious health setbacks that curtailed her independence, she expressed to me her aversion to reaching the 100-year mark. She didn't mind being old, she said; she just didn't want to fall apart. The last time I saw her was at our group; though frail, she still chuckled with me in the kitchen as I boiled water for tea and mentioned how much she had enjoyed coming to my book party - a haul for her, which she had insisted on making. I said goodbye at the night's end and told her I'd see her at our next meeting, but I ended up not making it due to conflicts in my schedule. I never saw her again.

Jean Taggart wanted us to say of her that she was a fourth-generation Californian and proud of it. As the song says, 'I know when I die, I will breath my last sigh for sunny California,' but Jean always said, she planned to go out laughing.

I can hear her now.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

New This Week: Recommended Fiction

This week, I heartily recommend two books which I endorsed and which captured me from beginning to end.

FOR THE KING by Catherine Delors
Catherine Delors blazed onto the historical fiction scene with her riveting Mistress of the Revolution, about a young woman swept up into the vagaries and savagery of the French Revolution, and her struggle to survive. In FOR THE KING, Ms Delors turns her keen eye for characterization and impeccable sense of period detail to the tumultuous world of Napoleonic Paris, offering us a fascinating account of a conflicted man determined to uncover the truth behind a spectacular crime. With consummate skill, she guides us into a world that is glamorous, barbaric and deceitful, where privilege often trumps guilt and betrayal can exact an unimaginable price. This was one of my favorite endorsement reads of 2010; masterfully written, FOR THE KING offers a vivid portrait of a city caught between its violent past and treacherous present, combining the pulse-pounding suspense of a thriller with the glamour of superbly researched historical fiction.

SHADOW OF THE SWORDS by Kamran Pasha
Forget everything you thought you know about the Crusades. In this gorgeously wrought tale, following his sublime Mother of the Believers, Kamran Pasha depicts the epic struggle for Jerusalem between Christians and Muslims with startling modern relevance. His unexpected portrayal of charismatic Saladin, whose gift for leadership harbors a secret weakness for a woman forbidden to him; tortured Richard the Lionheart, whose blind ambition to conquer the East turns him into a ruthless, fallible foe; and Miriam, the proud healer haunted by the past, is timely and deeply moving. Mr Kamran's vision is rooted in both sensual detail and a sage appreciation for irony; passionate, gilded with the scents of a vanished time, and steeped in the blood and thunder of two antagonistic faiths, SHADOW OF THE SWORDS is a triumph from start to finish.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Four Books I Recommend: Mini Reviews

THE PASSAGE by Justin Cronin
This is being buzzed as the Big Book of the Year, and with reason: it was bought for a colossal sum at auction by Ballantine Books; film rights sold to Ridley Scott, director of Alien and Gladiator within days, and it's drawn comparisons to the best of Stephen King. Being a fan of King's earlier novels (The Shining is one of my all-time favorites) I was intrigued by Cronin's apocalyptic tale of a scientific experiment gone awry and a world overcome by virological vampires, aptly dubbed "virals." At the center of this huge story spanning over 700 pages is an enigmatic girl named Amy, whose abandonment by her mother propels her into the horrific events leading up to the end of civilization as we know it, and the creation of a much-altered and frightening post-collapse society, where clusters of surviving mortals hide behind enclosed homesteads and banks of battery-powered lights which are slowly but inexorably losing power. The cast is immense, as befitting an epic, though at times this proves challenging both in remembering who everyone is and investing in any single person, particularly as you never know when said person will fall prey to the marauding, tree-leaping, blood-thirsty virals who've quite literally "eaten the world." These virals, however, are more than toothy creatures; and it's their secret, as well as Amy's role in it, that drives the story to its long-winded but ultimately creepy conclusion. THE PASSAGE requires immersion and patience; but for the intrepid reader there are rewards to be had, including the first 250 pages, which are a pitch-perfect icy soak into the terrors of science taken to extreme, and later on, a particularly nasty confrontation with hordes of virals in devastated Las Vegas. Mr Cronin is working on the next book in a proposed trilogy.

THE ILLUMINATOR by Brenda Rickman Vantrese
This is another book that generated serious buzz when it sold to St Martin's Press years ago and I bought a first edition because, frankly, the cover looked like a gold-laminated Faberge egg. Unfortunately, I didn't get around to reading it until recently, though I've faithfully bought the next two books by Ms Vantrese based on reviews. And let me just say for the record: Why did I wait so long?! THE ILLUMINATOR is a magnificent, thought-provoking and defiantly anti-anachronistic plunge into the turmoil and tragedy of 14th century England. The story, on the surface, appears deceptively simple: a widow, Lady Kathyrn - portrayed refreshingly in middle age, rather than the dewy glamour of youth- is fighting to save her estate as inheritance for her sons from the rapacity of the Church and ill-intentioned suitors. Enter a mysterious illuminator named Finn and his evanescent daughter; after a mishap on the road involving a pig and a dwarf, Finn is conscripted into plying his trade as an illuminator of manuscripts for the local bishop and comes to live in Lady Kathyrn's manor, where his presence sets off a chain of life-shattering events. Vantrese's true strengths lie in her superb grasp of the era and understanding of the complex importance of spirituality to people striving to overcome every-day suffering. This is not a romanticized historical recreation; THE ILLUMINATOR transports you into a time both fascinating and repellent in its contradictions. Ms Vantrese is also the author of The Mercy Seller and The Heretic's Wife, which loosely connect with her first book and are now at the top of my TBR list.

DAUGHTER OF FORTUNE by Isabel Allende
Let me say it upfront: I'm a devoted fan of Ms Allende. From her House of the Spirits to Zorro, I have reveled in her quixotic, sensual, unabashedly sprawling explorations of family ties, the toll and joys of love in all its diverse forms, and the independent spirit of the immigrant. DAUGHTER OF FORTUNE was the book selected by Oprah for her book club and of course it garnered enormous acclaim; while I bought it, it was another that sat on my shelf unread, for some inexplicable reason. Nevertheless, the wait was worth it. Infused with Ms Allende's trademark turns of phrase ("fate lashed its tail and changed her life forever") and cast of eccentric characters driven by private obsessions, this novel takes place in the 1800s, starting in Chile with the discovery of a baby in a soap crate, left on the threshold of the very proper but secret-riddled English family of the Sommers. The child, named Eliza, is raised by the delightful wasp-waisted Ms Rose Sommers, indoctrinated in the limited methods a girl can employ to survive in their rarefied society; but when Eliza falls passionately and unexpectedly in love with a common clerk, she flees the safe emptiness of her cloistered existence for feral California, embarking on an adventure that awakens her to life's vast potential and cracks the fragile veneer in which the Sommers themselves have dwelled. Ms Allende's deft pen conjures to vivid, humane life both the hypocrisy of Victorian mores in South America as well as the savage abandon of the Gold Rush; her cast is wide and diverse, ranging from the mourning Chinese physician who accompanies Eliza to a caravan of prostitutes led by a transgender humanitarian. Very few writers today can claim the mastery of color and depth of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's work; I humbly suggest that Ms Allende is definitely one of them.

THE SHEEN ON THE SILK by Anne Perry
Anne Perry departs from her bestselling Victorian mysteries for this epic, yet at times uneven, tale of 13th century Byzantium featuring a female physician who disguises herself as a eunuch to uncover the truth about her twin's involvement in the assassination of a politician. Still reeling from a Venetian-led assault that devastated its populace and exiled its imperial family, Byzantium is a city of crumbling secrets, besieged noble families, and labyrinthine intrigues; into this dangerous yet seductive crossroads between East and West enters Anna, a.k.a. Anastasius, determined to prove her brother's innocence. While Anna's story is compelling in and of itself, it is her patroness Zoe, an aging but still beautiful noblewoman intent on revenge, who steals the plot — seductive, lethal, and uncompromising, Zoe has never forgotten the debt that Venice has incurred for destroying the city, even as her own past is haunted by tragedy and violence. Woven throughout the novel's ambitious narrative are various supporting characters, including a conflicted Roman priest whose contact with Byzantium throws his own faith into question; a Venetian sailor seeking his hidden past; and a spiritually pliant bishop of the Orthodox faith determined to prevent ecclesiastical union with Rome. Perry excels in her characterizations and in creating an ambiance that shifts easily between the gilded corridors of Byzantium’s sea-scented palaces to the corrupt intrigues of the Vatican to the arid expanse of the Sinai desert; however, at times her pacing can be challenging both because of the wide cast of characters and the novel's meditations on the meaning of religion in a world overcome by upheaval.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Does the Prize make the Genre?

Hilary Mantel's recent win of The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction is a definite boon for a genre that has suffered more than its fair share of critics. In the days leading up to the award of this prestigious UK-based prize, both author Sarah Dunant – a nominee - and academic Jerome de Groot wrote pieces in the Times and The Scotsman, respectively, which attest to, and attempt to explain, the current popularity of the historical novel. Both pieces offer valid points and rejoice in our genre's resurrection; and no one who has read my blog can deny my own admiration for Dunant’s work, in particular.

However, for me, both pieces exude a slight whiff of troubling elitism prevalent within the genre. It's almost as if historical novelists must justify the reason for their work while being  divided into categories: the literary; the commercially popular; and, well, the rest. While we cannot deny a class status within the genre, as in all forms of writing, I believe there are more deserving novelists working in the arena of historical fiction than just the ubiquitous nominees. There seems to be a general reluctance to acknowledge this fact, as if in doing so we might risk opening the floodgates to a tidal wave of undesirables who will inundate our shelves; as if by paring the list to a few well-heeled and universally acclaimed names, we can restrain  the growth of this rather checkered genre and keep it in its proper place, so to speak.

Surely the time has come to cease casting aspersions based on a tarnished past? Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton, Georgette Heyer, et al are our grand dames, who deserve respect, if nothing else, for popularizing a genre mired in 19th century convention. While few today would deem their books as serious literary endeavors, they remain compulsively readable. Even more important, these hard-working, prolific novelists helped make the genre accessible to thousands of readers who otherwise might never have picked up, much less read, an historical novel.

The archaic confusion between romance novels with historical settings—where the romantic interaction always assumes precedence over history— and the current vogue in novels featuring real historical figures appears to be a partial culprit in our current elitist stance. No one, it seems, wants to be caught dead being dubbed the descendant of a bodice ripper. Nor do some literary-aspiring novelists want to be caught dead doing the “marquee name” while others, conversely, shun stories about ordinary people living in the past, with nary a guttering beeswax candle or flicker of velvet in sight.

But in truth, these divisions are blurring. While it can be said we’re experiencing an overemphasis on queens, which in turn risks exposing the genre to all the historic criticisms leveled against it, such as lack of veracity, distortion of facts, etc., the genre is also more popular than ever— and that in and of itself is a remarkable feat, a testament to the fact that readers love what we write and there is room for variations on a theme.

I’m all for excellence in our craft; indeed, I strive for it. I just feel there is more of it around us than the rest of the world wants to admit and we must celebrate our diversity, rather than merely exalt our loftiest achievements.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Blog Tour Week 4

This is the final week of my tour for The Confessions of Catherine de Medici. I've had a lot of fun visiting the blogs and meeting readers; for me, the time just flew by. I also want to thank all the bloggers who took the time to review the book and host me during this tour; I owe each of them a huge debt of gratitude!

I'll be visiting the following blogs:
June 21 - Cafe of Dreams
June 21 -Bags, Books and Bon Jovi
June 21 - Teresa's Reading Corner
June 22 - Bookgirl's Nightstand
June 22 - One More Paragraph
June 22 - Celtic Lady Reviews
June 22- Medieval Bookworm
June 23 - A Room Without Books Is So Empty
June 23 - So Many Precious Books, So Little Time
June 24 - Epic Rat
June 24 - Review from Here
June 25 - My Friend Amy
June 25 - The Eclectic Reader
June 25 - Tribute Books Reviews

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Week 3 of the Confessions tour

This week, I'll be at the following blogs on the third week of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici virtual tour. Please, stop by if you can!

June 14 - Wonders and Marvels. Enter to win one of 3 copies of the book!
June 14-  The Bluestocking Society
June 15- Savvy Verse and Wit
June 15- The Book Faery Reviews
June 16- The Review Stew
June 16 - Literary Lolita
June 17-  Acting Balanced
June 17- Life in Review
June 18 - Review from Here
June 18 - The Introverted Reader

Friday, June 11, 2010

A CONFESSIONS Party

The Catherine cake
On Thursday, June 10, we held a book party to celebrate the publication of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici. The event was held at my favorite San Francisco independent, Bookshop West Portal, which has been incredibly supportive of me and my work. Most authors know that bookstores these days are under a lot of pressure due to the state of the market in general and online discounting in specific; however, bookstores remain integral to our business, for these are comprised of actual human beings who recommend, hand-sell, and promote books to in-store customers. Without them, we'd be wholly dependent on the impartial automation of the online world, where titles sit among thousands of other thumbnails.
Readers!!
The party was great, well attended, and lots of fun. My partner and I served a cake with the book cover in frosting (raspberry and chocolate; it was divine), wine, and cheese; we held a Catherine de Medici medallion giveaway and of course the store sold books. I want to thank everyone who came and the bookshop personnel for their incredible generosity. I'm posting some photos here of the event; if you'd like a personalized copy of the book, please do contact the store. I'll make sure to go and personalize the book for you. Otherwise, there are currently signed copies available and they can be sent to you. Thanks to all of who came and to all of you who were there with me in spirit!

Monday, June 7, 2010

CONFESSIONS Blog Tour Week 2

This week, I'll be visiting the following blogs as part of my month-long virtual blog tour for The Confessions of Catherine de Medici. Hope to see you there! If you're in the San Francisco Bay Area, please come to my book launch party at Bookshop West Portal, too. We'll be serving wine, cake and offering a Catherine de Medici medallion giveaway. Should be fun :)

June 8 http://rebecca2007.wordpress.com
June 9 http://bookingmama.blogspot.com
June 10 http://literarilyspeaking.net
June 11 http://writingren.blogspot.com

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Win A Silver Phoenix Pin, courtsey of MJ Rose at The Burton Review

By now, most of you know how much I love MJ Rose's Reincarnationist series. These are intriguing, layered and fascinating thrillers that are right up there with the best in the genre. MJ's latest, The Hypnotist, is my favorite so far, combining reincarnation, art, and the high-stakes black market world into a complex, unputdownable story. You can read my review here.

Now, MJ is offering readers a limited edition silver Phoenix pin, courtsey of The Burton Review. Fans of the series will recognize the pin's significance; others can simply enjoy its beauty. To enter, head over to The Burton Review where Marie Burton is also offering a great post on MJ's books, including the book trailer. Good luck!